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Being Cool

The Work of Elmore Leonard


Charles J. Rzepka


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013

Hardcover. ix+225 pp. ISBN 978-1421410159. $29.95 / £19.50


Reviewed by Marie-Christine Agosto

Université de Brest



After an early career of writing Westerns in the 1950’s, American novelist Elmore Leonard has turned into an extremely prolific crime fiction writer. As Boston University Professor, Charles J. Rzepka says: “Both the topical reach of his work and the span of his career are enormous: six decades, dozens of short stories, and forty-five novels, not to mention screenplays and televised versions of his writings.” Yet, Leonard has received little scholarly attention so far, although the debate over his status as a serious writer is now over and he is even mentioned as an experimental writer. Rzepka’s book, written just before Leonard’s death in 2013, is the first academic study to pursue a single major theme throughout Leonard’s entire work. His corpus is complemented by first-hand material: unpublished stories, twelve hours of recorded interviews of the author and various oral and photographic testimonies provided by his family. Borrowing from Leonard’s 1999 novel entitled Be Cool, a sequel to Get Shorty (1991), Rzepka focuses on what the “being cool attitude” means in Leonard’s universe of crime and violence. He proceeds through an interweaving of psychological, philosophical and narratological approaches of his subject, while following the chronology of Leonard’s production and constantly relating his observations to Leonard’s biography, experience and literary inheritance. Doing so, he encompasses many aspects of Leonard’s work from a diachronic perspective and provides the reader with a kaleidoscopic definition of both his style of writing and opinions on art in general, the key words of which are: sense of place, sense of sound and authorial invisibility.

In a 1984 issue of Time, Leonard was nicknamed “The Dickens of Detroit.” Like Dickens, he portrays colorful characters and has an eye for grotesques. His novels are populated not by stock characters but by bunches of intriguing characters, and often conclude with an “unfamiliar twist” or an anticlimactic denouement. While in Dickens’s Victorian England, vice is punished and virtue is rewarded, Leonard’s world is a mirror of society, it is an amoral world. To describe the empathic feeling of identification elicited by Leonard’s devilish characters, Rzepka also alludes to De Quincey’s quotations about Shakespearean characters who conjure up “sympathy of comprehension” devoid of “pity or approbation.” Yet, while in Shakespeare sympathy of comprehension is a device to reveal the villain, in Leonard it calls attention to fear, boredom, self-consciousness, and the loss of authenticity. Hemingway is another master and mentor to whom Leonard is indebted. Being cool owes much to Hemingway’s definition of courage, “guts,” or “grace under pressure,” but it is pervaded with amorality and meaninglessness. Psychologically and philosophically, being cool is simply being oneself and living in the now, with confidence and fun, yet avoiding physical violence. Leonard is interested “in the man behind the gun, rather than in the actions of the gun itself”. Leonard’s cool characters are self-reliant male heroes inherited from the classic American Western films Leonard would watch when a child.  

At this point, Rzepka gives a clear and substantial panorama of Leonard’s formative years. Born in New Orleans in 1925, Leonard was a solitary and imaginative boy who lived in a happy family contrasting with the violent milieus depicted in his novels. In his preschool years, he led a sheltered existence, but was deeply fascinated by the violence of the early Depression era. His family kept moving through the United States until they eventually settled in Bloomfield Village, Michigan, near Detroit (the setting of many of Leonard’s stories), and the young boy compensated for the loneliness entailed by these frequent changes of places by creating imaginary friends. His imagination also fed on the stories his sister and his father used to tell him when a boy. Later, in his adolescence and early manhood, his mother nurtured his creative ambitions with her subscription issues of the Book of the Month Club, which he avidly read and which helped him discover some major writers. But the Book of the Month Club mainly offered feminized middle brow culture literature, and Leonard needed more popular masculinized genres: he found them in team sports and in Western literature, adventure books and stories of legendary gangsters, like Bonnie and Clyde. He decided to become a professional writer at the age of 25. He graduated from Detroit in 1943, served in the army for three years, did English major and philosophy minor at a time when Sartrean existentialism was in the air. He endorsed the idea that existence precedes essence and was more interested in behavior than in metaphysical doctrines. He was also interested in Aristotle’s techne (or skill), a leading concept in Leonard’s work, prevailing over praxis: for him, the point of techne is to change the real world, according to a set of rules rather than abstract principles. In his life, the wind of change came when his father died at 56, and Leonard, who was prepared to join him in a General Motors business, had to find a job in advertising. He married in 1949, and started to write his first stories. The following five years were very productive, with half of his Western stories being written between 1951 and 1953, in a period when this literary and cinematographic genre was highly popular in America, probably because it raised questions about the Cold War politics and social postwar conformism. “When I picked up Zane Grey,” Leonard says, “I couldn’t believe it was so bad”. Yet “it was a good place to learn.”

Among his first Western short stories, “Trail of the Apache” (1951) made him a part-time professional writer and was followed by many more of them, among which: “Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo”, “Law of the Hunted Ones”, “The Big Hunt”, “The Boy Who Smiled”, “The Captives” (1955). In the meantime he also issued a number of novels, among which The Bounty Hunters (1953) and The Law at Randado (1954). They all show how Leonard, who was not familiar with the historical facts of life out west, drew much of his material from Western literature mixed with his own personal life. In his Westerns, the obsessive concern is with the construction of identity and coming of age through relationships inside and outside the family. In this phase of Leonard’s career, the role of a father surrogate determines the coming of age scenario, but the vertical relationship between master and apprentice that it embodies quickly fades and is replaced by attention to horizontal, peer group challenges. It was under pressure from his agent that he began to introduce minor female characters (wives or mistresses), and the occasional romantic subplot into his masculinized universe, for example in the story “The Colonel’s Lady”. But only later under his second wife’s influence did he stage female protagonists. In the first two chapters of his book, Rzepka follows the figure of Jack Ryan, a typically cool character who masters the being cool attitude as a prowess rather than a pose. Here, the stereotype is the strong, silent Western hero, who achieves a proud mastery of the work he is paid for. Jack Ryan reappears in later novels, such as Unknown Man # 89 (1977), Ten Years After (1977) and City Primeval (1980). 

The “cool attitude” encompasses not only themes and characters, it is also performative. A good point in Rzepka’s book is the way he links psychological and stylistic observations. He indulges in a close analysis of narrative diction, point of view (free indirect discourse) and tone of voice, once again through parallels and comparisons with other writers who influenced Leonard in his Western phase, especially Hemingway. Unlike Chandler, Leonard never writes in the first person and hates being compared to writers of detective fiction. On the contrary, he sticks to “rules of invisibility,” and privileges authorial withdrawal behind the characters’ points of view. His use of multiple restricted focalization is inherently cinematic, it is made for the movie or TV screens, and it reads like screenplays. That’s why it attracted the interest of the studios. Leonard has an ear for voices and for dialogue, for patterns and cadence of speech, and this aspect of his craft is a warrant of authenticity just as much as documentary fidelity to fact and history. His interest in jazz improvisation pervades his compositional technique. “Like a great jazz musician”, Rzepka says, “Leonard wants to avoid self-consciousness by letting his personality come out as performance rather than persona, focusing on what he wants to say, not on how he wants to say it.”

In 1960 Leonard completed his first crime novel. He had already had some success in selling to Hollywood, and for the next two decades he continued to write with Hollywood in mind, sometimes transforming his own books into screenplays or vice versa. His fame is definitely linked to the success of his movie fiction, with the most famous actors starring his cool protagonists: Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd, Paul Newman in Hombre, Burt Lancaster in Valdez is Coming, to take three examples of his Western films; John Travolta in Get Shorty and George Clooney in Out of Sight, in the crime fiction phase. Besides, his fiction attracted the attention of movie directors: Be Cool was directed by Gary Gray, and Jacky Brown by Quentin Tarantino.

Only in the 1970’s did he venture on experimentation in a new manner, by restricting point of view to a single character’s mind, and using the narrative voice to sound like speech. This decade was also his best crime fiction period during which he turned to the “M” protagonists, older and more experienced, of which Son “Martin” of the Great War, and Walter “Majestyk,” the WW2 veteran, are the prototypes. If For Whom the Bell Tolls had influenced his Westerns, the major turning point and influence on his crime fiction was George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972). His biographers acknowledge that it was a determinant source of inspiration for him, especially when he worked on Mr Majestyk (1974), the first book he wrote after reading Higgins. The Walter Majestyk kind of character was to reappear later in Fifty Two Pickup (1974) and in Swag (1976). Higgins’s influence also triggered in Leonard a new sense of realistic, conversational, colorful dialogue, which he achieved by capturing the voices of robbers, gunrunners, cops, and other crime fiction characters.

Most of his crime novels are set in Detroit, yet they explore contemporary variations of the Western setting. But above all, they display a convincing sense of place owing to the realistic evocation of the milieu through characters rather than through lengthy descriptions. Keen on details, Rzepka gives many examples of how this method helps create a metropolitan mise-en-scène from scraps of information. Here again, sounding voices in the most faithful and authentic way is essential, and Leonard is particularly good at it, as shown in Fifty Two Pickup, where the cool Jacky Brown is memorable for his staccato, obscene, fragmentary colloquial monologues, just like his alter ego, Ernest “Stick” Stickey Jr., in Swag. Not only has the setting changed but the he definition of “being cool” has evolved too. Ryan’s Rules (the alternative title of Swag) makes it clear: “always be polite on the job,” “dress well,” “never say more than is necessary.” Ryan’s rules echo Leonard’s own rules, listed in his essay Ten Rules of Writing (2001). They are meant to cut out unnecessary words and make writing more efficient. Rules 1 and 2 proscribe descriptions of weather and prologues, rule 4 is against adverbs, rules 8 and 9 prohibit detailed descriptions, rules 5, 6 and 7 are against verbs other than “said”, rule 10 is against everything readers tend to skip. In other words, “being cool” also refers to the author’s skill and discipline: being business like, not taking it personally, doing it right, and earning his reader’s interest, just like Cal Brown, the police detective who plays the cow-boy in Swag and earns his opponent’s respect.

Leonard was a devout Catholic in the 50s, but he stopped going to mass in the mid-1970’s and went through personal crises, marked by his hospitalization for gastritis, his struggle to give up drinking with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous which he joined in 1974, his subsequent divorce from Beverly in 1977. In the mature phase of his career, he used his own experience as a recovering alcoholic. The novels published in that period – The Unknown Man (1977), The Switch (1978), The Hunted (1978), Touch (begun in 1977, completed in 1987) – deal with new themes that foreshadow his future preoccupations (alcoholism, recovery, religion), and the general question of how to repair the human body and change one’s life entirely. At this stage, the definition of “cool” evolves into patience, politeness, organization, conscientiousness, adaptation to new and challenging situations, and the capacity to remain professional in the face of belligerence and insult. From the stylistic point of view, Leonard keeps to free indirect speech and authorial invisibility, yet he dare practice shifts of focalization from one character to another. And he is more and more in control. In The Switch, probably under the influence of his second wife Joan Shepard, he introduces the first female protagonist, Mickey. Yet, whether they are good girls and bad girls, his female characters are still endowed with masculine cool attitudes and obsessed with the idea of mastering the skills. Although they are very much the product of 1970’s feminism, Leonard met with feminist criticism and was blamed for his cow-boy infatuation and machismo.

Alterity of gender and alterity of race insinuates into his late fiction although pronounced ethnicity disqualifies a character for the role of a Leonard protagonist. Native Americans who were present in the Western phase rarely appear in his crime fiction, neither do the Hispanic and Latino nationalities. A few other groups pop up, among which, of course, Italian. But above all, alterity includes nonhumans: animal and animal symbolism, which Rzepka calls “manimal” themes, for example in Killshot (1989) where characters are asked what animal they would like to be. In the context of changing one’s life, it provides a running commentary on the character’s attempt to control his own self-transformations, crucial to his survival, as can be observed with Armand Degas, a mixed-race Ojibway and French Canadian, who earns the totemic nickname “Blackbird” in Killshot. Rzepka thoroughly analyses Leonard’s final phase of postmodernist bravura in LaBrava (2009), where shooting a camera is equivalent to shooting a gun, and which deals with the difficulty to draw a clear line between fiction and truth. For Leonard, it is highly probable that “being cool” also involved a metafictional account of his own compositional process.

Rzepka ends his book with considerations on the progression of the “being cool” problematics. He lays emphasis on how Leonard has narrowed his career focus from the possibility of giving life meaning, simply by what you choose to do with it, to the possibility, or impossibility, of just “being” without “doing”, abandoning agency, and “just being yourself.” Tragically ironical as it may sound after Leonard’s death, Rzepka’s evocation of Blue dreams, the novel Leonard was working on when he died, and his hinting at the writer’s future directions, demonstrate Leonard’s energy and unfaltering potentialities, right until the very end. From a more scholarly point of view, Rzepka’s book is very well structured, informative, documented and pedagogical. He has brilliantly portrayed a whole life and career, patiently combining a close academic analysis and a more anecdotal and biographical approach. He has proved capable of lingering on the way when necessary, and taking time to explore unexpected and fruitful byways. The result is extremely efficient. Rzepka’s book can only be heartily recommended, for it is of a major interest to an academic audience as well as to Leonard’s non-academic fans.  


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